"This was definitely a lady-run project": Samin Nosrat dishes on her new Netflix food show

"I want to honor home cooks. And who are home cooks? They're almost always women." Nosrat turns her book into TV

Published October 27, 2018 6:30PM (EDT)

Samin Nosrat in "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" (Netflix/Adam Rose)
Samin Nosrat in "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" (Netflix/Adam Rose)

 "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" the beautiful and wonderfully useful and informative cookbook written by James Beard award-winning, New York Times food writer Samin Nosrat has just been adapted into a four-part Netflix series by the same name. Nosrat, the star of the new food series, and the show's director, the documentarian Caroline Suh sat down with me to talk about the making of the only food adventure series led by a woman.

Both the show and the book are directed at the home cook and are committed to breaking away from the slavish dedication to the written recipe, rather Nosrat, who worked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, insists that in order to cook well all you need to do is blend the right amount of salt, fat and acid to a dish and then apply the correct amount of heat. All that's required to do that is a clear understanding of how these four elements effect food.

There is not a single recipe in the book until after page 199, and there isn't one formal recipe in any of the four episodes of the show. "I used to be such a recipe follower. I'd say, oh, I don't have crème fraiche, I can't make this. Or else I have to run out and go get crème fraiche. I would be such a stickler for following the rules" says Suh. "And now, because of working on this project and reading the book, I'm free. It's so much more relaxing to cook that way."

Each episode of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" takes the viewer on a journey in pursuit of an understanding of one of these categories. Salt is addressed in Japan, fat in Italy and acid (primarily in the form of citrus) takes the viewers to Mexico. Heat is addressed in the final episode and brings the audience into Nosrat's home in Berkeley. It is a very welcome addition to the growing canon of exceptional food shows.

The following is a transcript of our conversation.

The show is based on Nosrat's award-winning cookbook "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat." So, I just finished binge-watching this, like all good Netflix products, and I am so excited to talk to you guys about this show.

Samin Nosrat: I'm so excited you liked it. It's only been up for, not even 24 hours.

I think I was the first through the door ... People were following me in the door. I was there so quick. I loved it from the minute it started.

Caroline Suh: Really? That's good.

Yeah. The music was amazing. And the locations are fantastic. And the characters. And you're-

Samin Nosrat: Okay.

Headlining the show you are just amazing. You do such a great job of bringing people into this thing and making people feel comfortable and teaching them things. I'm a sort of ambitious, aggressive home cook and I thought I would know everything that was being imparted by you, delightfully. And I learned a lot of things.

Samin Nosrat: That's so amazing to hear. Thank you.

So I want to know how you chose the locations and the subjects and the characters that you chose. Maybe we start with Japan and one food source that I didn't know was a big part of the Japanese culture, was, salt.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. It all was kind of a matrix that we had to figure out together because we made the show sort of pretty rapidly, all in a row. You know what I mean? It was like a Beautiful Mind moment with one million puzzle pieces that were constantly moving. So, Japan didn't happen in a vacuum, 'cause for a while we were gonna go to Italy for salt.

It all had to do with seasonality and availability and who we could find. But since the beginning I had such a strong feeling that Japan would be such an amazing place to visit, to explore the element of salt, because in Japanese cooking there's so many different kinds of salt used on a daily basis: soy sauce, miso, pickles, and also salt.

Which also, I agree with you, I didn't know that there was a great tradition of salt-making in Japan, either.

Four thousand varieties?

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. Isn't that crazy? It was bananas.

Caroline Suh: You can just set up a business by siphoning water from the sea and then drying it.

And squeezing out seaweed. Right?

Samin Nosrat: Yes.

Caroline Suh: Yup.

Samin Nosrat: It was really remarkable there. And I think they had told us that the government had deregulated, actually, the salt-making industry in the last, I think, maybe 10 or 15 years. And so because of that all of these little artisanal salt makers have popped up, just a one-man show, two-man show.

So we actually got to meet this amazing person who . . . he does exactly that. He siphons water out of a bay at high tide and then runs it through this sort of filtration-evaporation process to get the water pretty concentrated. And then he takes it to his home where he has this basically wood-powered bath, where he evaporates it a second time. And very carefully creates these flakes, these most delicate, light-as-snow flakes of salt. He's the husband of the woman who taught me how to make miso.

Samin Nosrat: It's a very in-the-family . . . Once we were led to one person then that would lead us to the next person. So, often it started with a connection that I had but sometimes we ended up with characters that we could have never imagined finding.

Right. And the ex-patriot that was in the salt episode. She was a home cook, right?

Samin Nosrat: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

That was another great touch, was that you found people who were . . . You certainly used professionals but you also looked to home cooks to help you.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. I think for me I am very much a champion of home cooking and home cooks. And there are so many food shows, really beautiful ones, that exist to elevate professional cooking and professional chefs. But there aren't that many that really celebrate home cooking, or are for home cooks especially. And I wanted to do that both with the content, with the characters, at every level.

Samin Nosrat: And Caroline was a really good force because sometimes I would slip into professional mindset and she'd be like, "Is that really what someone would do at home?" And so, you were keeping me real, for sure, especially when I started cleaning other peoples' houses.

Caroline Suh: One of Samin's most powerful messages is that anyone can learn how to cook. So we didn't want to go to these places where they had sous vide machines and crazy tools. We wanted to really show that around the world everyone kind of cooks the same way.

Yeah. I actually noticed it in the episodes 'cause like all the Netflix products you have to watch the whole thing in order to really get it. When you did get a little esoteric in terms of the food, the salt is what I'm thinking of, the miso, was that you returned it so well back into a home cooking experience, with somebody who had no home-

Caroline Suh: She knows nothing.

At all about food. Though lovely, of course. And I thought that was great control of a food show's message. Something you don't often see. The temptation to move into the esoteric and show off a little bit is considerable on food shows. And you guys really had great discipline.

Caroline Suh: We wanted it to be rooted in Samin's message and in regular kitchens, so . . . 

Yeah. It was very well done. And characters in the . . . beautiful locations in Italy and in Japan, but characters as well.

Samin Nosrat: Absolutely.

And adventures. The episode that's about fat is great because it's about animal fat and vegetable fat in the form of olive oil and also dairy fat. But you get the pig disassembling scenes and they're great, and they're beautifully shot. What's the technical word for when you shoot above the table?

Caroline Suh: You can call it tabletop.

Tabletop, okay. The cut to the disassembled pig and then the descriptions of the parts and their uses; and also choices that you have to make.When you're taking apart one pig you don't get to do everything that you want. I'd love it if you'd talk about . . . 

Samin Nosrat: Sure. Lorenzo the butcher who really invited us into his butcher shop and onto his farm, he was so passionate about these animals. He had, I think, since the 1800s or 1600s, his family has raised this variety of pig. And he's, I don't know, eighth generation butcher. It's incredible, the history for him.

For him there is . . . He thinks about that tradition every time he makes a decision that is about cutting. So, if you're gonna make the choice to . . . If you want to make dinner out of your pork, right, you're gonna cut it a different way than if you want to preserve all of the fat on there so that you can cure it and turn it into prosciutto or a piece of pancetta or lardo.

So there are different decisions that you make based on what it is that you're ultimate goal is, which I think is reflected throughout all cooking. And my goal as a teacher is to help you understand how to make those decisions.

Caroline Suh: They are like little revelations. I mean, when we were filming with the pigs Samin said, and Lorenzo said, "Oh, the legs get the most work because they're walking around all the time." And so they are the most muscular and have the least fat. Whereas the belly has the most fat.

I'm a big home cook but I didn't know . . . I'd never thought about meat in terms of animals and their bodies in the same way.

That's great. And there's so much work involved when you set about taking apart-

Caroline Suh: They did it pretty quickly.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. I mean, he's a master and he does it every day and so it was really beautiful. It was very almost symphonic watching him. He was able to do it in the fewest amount of cuts. And that's one of the things I really love about European-style butchery, is that it's not about the hacksaw and electric saws and stuff, that just cut sort of willy-nilly down. It's so much more about the poetry of being familiar with the joints and with the bones and being able to follow that so you get the maximum yield. And it's much more sort of a natural way of butchery.

So even that moment when the half of the pig is hanging and he sticks his knife in there to just disassemble the prosciutto and it comes off, that is such a masterful move and I love that we were able to capture that.

Yeah. It was beautiful. And the knife is more the size of a pen.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, it's not about a huge knife at all. It's about knowing how to use it.

Caroline Suh: And it's not about an expensive knife or-

Samin Nosrat: No, his dad was basically this little elf, it was so adorable, who, at one point I took out my own knife roll - and I don't have the most fancy or expensive knives but I think to him they appeared to be really fancy - and he was like, "Listen, it's not about the size of your knife. It's not about the cost of your knife. It's about how you use it." And I said, "Yes, I agree, I know."

You mentioned pickles in the first, when we were talking just now about salt. But one of the things that I liked so much about the show is that it was all very intertwined. Because pickles show up again in the third-

Samin Nosrat: In acid, yeah.

In acid, which is another great treatment of the subject. And also, not the first location I would go to to talk about acid . . . I don't know exactly what the first location is, but I was really pleasantly surprised to find this whole other access point to Mexico.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, well, we actually almost went to Iran, where my family's from, because the palette of our cooking is so acidic. And we use so many really sour ingredients in Persian cooking: pomegranate, molasses, sour oranges, so many tart yogurts and cheeses and things. And I really wanted to explore that. And at the last minute it just didn't make sense for us to go there, so we had to shift gears. And we were like, "Where should we go?"

And, I am from San Diego, I grew up eating Mexican food, and in my mind that had always been the next place in line to go to explore acid. But, you know, there are a lot of logistical reasons why we make decisions; and Netflix had just put out a couple of shows that had episodes in Mexico City and so they said "you can't go there, you have to figure out where else to go."

Samin Nosrat: And we did a little homework and found out that the sour oranges, the same ones that we were gonna visit and study in Iran, through the spice trades had made their way to Mexico, to the Yucatan, and were this integral ingredient in Yucatacan cuisine. And so it was this kind of beautiful poetry that we got to visit this same ingredient in a completely different place.

Did they come through the spice route through Spain?

Samin Nosrat: I think through India, yeah, through the Moors to Spain and then to Mexico, yeah. It's the Seville orange is what it's called a lot in English so yes, through Spain.

Okay. You guys worked together from the beginning to put this show together?

Caroline Suh: Yeah, well, we had a team of producers who were amazing and great and we all worked together. We studied Samin's book and thought, okay, how do we turn what is essentially a cookbook - I mean, it's more than a cookbook but it is a cookbook - and turn it into stories, and weave them together. And also, it is so layered, because a lot of the ingredients are salty and acidic. So how do we distill her most basic and useful lessons and turn it into a TV show?

Caroline Suh: So, it was a whole team of people who did that, and it was very fun. And it is like a matrix. You're trying to . . . Because you want the series to be varied enough. We also, you know, Europe, we watch so much food TV and there's a lot of stuff about Europe, which is great, but we kind of wanted to go with people who weren't the usual suspects.

So you did lots of research in anticipation of this.

Caroline Suh: Yes.

What were some of the goals? You watched all that food television and of course you loved all of it but there were some things that you chose not to do. What were you looking to do . . . Being honest to the book, what were you looking to do differently than had been done.

Caroline Suh: I think we wanted it to be . . . I mean, there's a lot of food television which is obviously beautiful but we wanted to be incredibly beautiful. And my background isn't in food; I'm a documentary filmmaker. So I kind of brought that perspective to it, as a lay person not a food person, I imagined, what would I get out of this, watching this.

And also it's really bringing . . . Samin is a very unusual character, in lovely ways, in wonderful ways. And we wanted to bring her spirit to life. That's why ... I mean, Netflix fell in love with her when they met her. Jigsaw, the production company, fell in love with her. So we wanted to take that kind of energy that she has and bring it to the screen. Because you don't see that many women who are out there harvesting seaweed and-

Yeah, and that was one of the things I was curious about was that to have a woman running the adventure is a great a welcome change.

Samin Nosrat: This was definitely a lady-run project. Yeah. It was not by mistake. It was definitely intentional, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, the choices that we made to make something that's different. I think there is a lot of great food TV out there but a lot of it's the same. So to me I thought, well, this is my one shot, maybe I'll never have another chance to do this. So what am I gonna do with this? I want to honor home cooks. And who are home cooks? They're almost always women.

And those people don't really ever get any credit. Those people don't ever get to be shown on TV in cinematic beauty, you know? I mean, Caroline, I don't know if you've always been obsessed with this or if you were just during when we were making it, but "I Am Love," the Luca Guadagnino movie - is that how you say his name?

Caroline Suh: I don't think so but I can't correct you.

Samin Nosrat: Forgive me, okay. But it was this beautiful . . . It's the same director who made "Call Me By Your Name" and it's the sort of beautiful Northern Italian love letter to Italy. And I think that was a big inspiration for you in making this episode that's a love letter to my Italy, to the Italy that I got to live in. And so things like that that would've never occurred to me, that's the kind of stuff that Caroline brought to it, was this sort of larger cinematic vision. These inspirations. It was really cool.

I was very excited to see you speaking other languages.

Samin Nosrat: It was exciting to get to.

It was a big part of it, is to not roll in and use English as the first method of communication, to really speak the language - or try, you know?

Samin Nosrat: Japan, I was definitely limited.

Caroline Suh: There was a lot of smiling and nodding.

I think that that kind of sensitivity to going into a situation and not taking it over is a very positive-

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I mean, that's also just who I've been my whole life, is a person who slips into situations and communities and does my best to fit in and make people feel comfortable. So in a way that's a skill that I've been honing my whole entire life.

And I didn't actually even realize how useful it would be until we were doing it. And I realized, oh, I happen to be really comfortable in front of the camera but there are a lot of things I'm learning about. I'm learning that there's all these people moving back there and it's my job to ignore them. Or we have to stop and do things multiple times, and it might feel like I made a mistake but I didn't actually make a mistake. We're doing it multiple times because they need a different angle. Or maybe I did make a mistake. But that's okay.

And so once I got a hang of that after a few days, I realized it was then my job to explain that to everybody who I came in contact with because certainly those people had never done it, either. And in order for them to be their most comfortable with me and help make the best television, I wanted to explain that so they could be at ease. You know, don't worry when we have to do it 20 times; it's not your fault; it's okay; it's just part of the process.

Caroline Suh: We know how uncomfortable it is being in front of a camera. I mean, I always am very empathetic whenever I have to do anything like this because-

So when you went back to San Francisco, I have one controversial question to ask you.

Samin Nosrat: Oh, yeah. Do.

When you chose the grocery store to use as the set or the background for your pro tips for shopping, why didn't you choose the co-op?

Samin Nosrat: We don't have a co-op in Berkeley. I live in Berkeley.

You couldn't go across the bay to Oakland and go to the Oakland co-op?

Samin Nosrat: No, I live in Berkeley where the big grocery store in the east bay is Berkeley Bowl. And so the big co-op in San Francisco is Rainbow,

Rainbow, right.

Samin Nosrat: But Berkeley Bowl has so much more produce. But the thing I love about that store - and I had to convince these guys that it wasn't too fancy — is that Berkeley Bowl just kind of has some of everything. So yes, you get your, like, organic whatever. But then they also have Best Foods mayonnaise. And so it's the whole spectrum of options are available.

And I know, especially in the winter in, like, Minnesota, you're not see that variety of produce. But we also chose to talk about broccoli and cauliflower and carrots and brussels sprouts, instead of all of the heirloom varieties of things, for a reason. So every choice that I made about what to cook and what to talk about was really with an idea of how will this reach and land with the greatest number of people, and really speak to them.

Caroline Suh: The last episode is meant to bring all of these lessons and all of the travel back home, and say, okay, how do you really cook? When you're in the United States, how do you really cook when you're faced with choices in a supermarket and-

Right. And, interesting thing about that is that really, when we talk about American cuisine we don't have a cuisine so much as we are a nation of immigrants and we pick and choose our different ingredients and our themes-

Samin Nosrat: Based on heritage. Totally.

And that was a great thing to be able to go out into the world and then come back and make short ribs.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, and apply it to, like, rice.

Roasted chicken.

Samin Nosrat: Chicken, vegetables, salad. Yeah. Absolutely.

It was very convincing that if you were somebody who's launching themselves on the project of really getting serious about cooking, or becoming curious about cooking, that this show would be one that . . . you'd see the possible, you know, and be excited about the outer edges of . . . 

Caroline Suh: I mean, just for me, if I . . . I used to be such a recipe follower. I'd say, oh, I don't have crème fraiche, I can't make this. Or else I have to run out and go get crème fraiche. I would be such a stickler for following the rules. And now, because of working on this project and reading the book, I'm free. It's so much more relaxing to cook that way.

You have to get 199 pages into that book before you say now you're ready to cook. And then there are recipes. It's clearly a very intentional thing. And it's reflected in the show. There are no recipes in the show. There's no mention of measurements.

Caroline Suh: And that was intentional.

Yeah, and it's a great way of . . . In the book I think that you talk about - I don't remember which chef you credit with this — but that a recipe is sort of a starting place.

Samin Nosrat: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

And that it should be used as a photograph, you know.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah.

And that you have to be present in the process and know that chile is the same as ragout and that that kind of preparation is repeated in cuisines across the world and you just have to get with it in terms of what ingredients.

Samin Nosrat: I always joke that there's only seven recipes in the world. Like, there's only seven ways of cooking things, and everywhere you go there's just variations of those things.

Caroline Suh: What are they, though?

Samin Nosrat: I don't know.

Caroline Suh: So that's your next book.

There's a sandwich, right? There's a sandwich everywhere. There's a sauce.

Caroline Suh: Moo shu pork slash burrito. Like, a burrito.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah.

Caroline Suh: That's your next book.

Samin Nosrat: Okay, got it.

The Seven Things. I think that that should comfort people and give people confidence, that really, you're just gonna make a thing that everybody's always been making the whole time. And what you're gonna just do is be present.

I have people in my life who really are, when they put . . . like you were talking about . . . when you put the recipe down you're like, okay, do I have everything I need? And in truth, salt, fat, acid, heat. Yeah.

Caroline Suh: It's extra pressure people don't need when they get home and they're exhausted and they've just worked a long day, to have to feel like you have to do something perfectly.

The food industry is built up around . . . is aspirational. I think it became aspirational ten years ago.

Samin Nosrat: Certainly over the course of my cooking career, perfectionism in cooking, in the image of the culinary world, has really proliferated. And the idea that dinner needs to be some perfectly plated thing with two vegetables and a meat. The dinner can't just be a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. I think our idea of what it means to cook at home has gotten a lot more complicated and my goal is to simplify it again.

And so for me, with the show, all I hope for is that it inspires people to cook, to feel like they can do it. My friend told me recently, she said, "Oh, at the end of episode four, I had a tray of cauliflower in the oven before the show was over."

Where is that cauliflower? I think it was headed that direction anyway, but Instagram certainly accelerated that process, that this is something that you need to be able to demonstrate to strangers that you're able-

Caroline Suh: Proficient.

Or your nearest and dearest. Can we talk about tools a little bit? 'Cause that was one of the themes through the . . . and actually, you didn't really hit this note too hard, and that was notable. People usually talk about the knife that they can't live without, and that wasn't the case. But you had a mortar and a pestle in three of the four, I think.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. I think maybe all of them.

It was remarkable for me because I use a lot of tools but I never use the mortar and pestle.

Samin Nosrat: It's just a great symbol for me of using your hands and working with your hands, and the power of that. And so, I don't believe that you need anything special. And actually, throughout the making . . . you know, like I said in the first episode, I brought my knives to Italy. And after that I just left them at home and we used whatever people had.

Because it wasn't about that special tool. It was about Dona Conchi's broken old blender, and whatever. 'Cause you don't need the fancy stuff to make something good. And if I was showing up with my fancy Microplane grater in the rural Yucatan, it wasn't necessarily true to the message.

Did you travel with the mortar and pestle?

Samin Nosrat: I hoarded several in Italy and sent them home with Netflix.

In their diplomatic pouch.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah.

I've got one in the cabinet and I'm gonna drag it out, I think, and try to use it a little more regularly. But the blender really does for me what the . . . Another one of the great things about the acid episode was the salsa. What's the story behind the salsa?

Samin Nosrat: It was just really spicy. As I said, you have to do things multiple times when you're shooting. And so I sort of was having a meta experience of eating the spiciest thing that I'd ever eaten and having tears come up, while knowing that I would have to do it many more times for the camera.

Caroline Suh: I think you only did it once because you touched your eye, which then became inflamed.

Samin Nosrat: Oh, that's right.

Caroline Suh: She was not acting. This was serious.

Well, listen, thank you so much for joining us here today, both of you. The show is bound to be a huge success 'cause I've already passed it on to three people and-

Samin Nosrat: Thank you so much-

Caroline Suh: For watching.

Yeah. Thank you.

Samin Nosrat: Thank you for having us. Really delightful.

By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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